The Conservative government opposes the use of the name Sisters in Spirit and any work on a groundbreaking database on murdered and missing Aboriginal women cases, and this is impacting any future funding the Native Women’s Association of Canada expects to receive for new projects on the issue.
And the government has been slowly “smothering” the Sisters in Spirit project which is responsible for bringing to national attention the hundreds of “shocking” cases of murdered and missing Aboriginal women, say sources familiar with the file.
During discussions around a new Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) project on murdered and missing women, Status of Women Canada officials said the rules for the funding’s source program prevented the use of government money for research and policy work. They have asked that funding proposals not include the name Sisters in Spirit or any plans to use the money for the database.
Nanci-Jean Waugh, spokeswoman for Status of Women, said they were still awaiting the proposal. She said she could not immediately answer questions on whether the department had imposed conditions on new funding.
Politically, it appears the Conservatives have now turned the page on Sisters in Spirit.
“That project was finished. Don’t mix apples and oranges,” said Conservative MP Shelly Glover, parliamentary secretary for Indian Affairs. “That project was finished, now we’re working with them to pursue other projects.”
Only last Friday, Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose singled out Sisters in Spirit during the government’s long-awaited $10-million announcement on a national strategy to deal with murdered and missing women cases.
“The journey truly began with an initiative called Sisters in Spirit that was led by the Native Women’s Association of Canada,” said Ambrose, during the announcement in Vancouver. “The association has undertaken an incredible amount of research… and they have brought to light the shocking extent of these horrendous acts of violence.”
The Oct. 29 announcement highlighted the creation of a new police support centre for missing persons, along with promised amendments to the Criminal Code to allow police to wiretap without warrants in emergencies and obtain multiple warrants on a single application. It also promised funding for community-based projects on violence against Aboriginal women and enhancing the cultural sensitivity of victim’s services.
It was criticized by some front-line workers, victims’ families, academics and opposition politicians over its lack of focus on Aboriginal women and its emphasis on giving more money and power to police.
The NWAC, however, publicly endorsed the strategy and the Conservatives have since invoked the 35-year-old organization’s name as a shield against criticism of the announcement.
Yet, over several months, the government had been quietly squeezing Sisters in Spirit, which was created under NWAC’s umbrella by the Liberal government in 2005. The Liberals committed $5 million over five years to the project.
The project was the catalyst that thrust the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women into the public consciousness. Its meticulous research into now nearly 600 cases broke new ground in a realm that had been previously ignored. Its national database became the first of its kind in Canada in its scope and detail.
Sisters in Spirit has received recognition from human rights organizations like Amnesty International. Police agencies and provincial governments have approached the project’s staff to share information.
Sisters in Spirit was also approached by police in British Colombia and government officials to become involved in the recently announced inquiry into police work around serial killer Robert Pickton’s case and a parallel process to culminate in a summit focusing on violence faced by Aboriginal women.
The “slow smothering” of Sisters in Spirit began last December, when former status of women minister Helena Guergis, after “fighting tooth and nail,” failed to convince the rest of the Stephen Harper cabinet to renew funding for the project, putting the future of Sisters in Spirit in limbo.
The government committed $10 million over two years in its 2010 federal budget “to address the disturbingly high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.”
The money, however, would not go to Sisters in Spirit. With its funding running out at the end of March, the Status of Women department stepped in to provide $500,000 to keep the project’s work going.
Sisters in Spirit then released a report that confirmed 582 cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women up to March 31 and a second project was put into the works called “Sisters in Spirit, evidence to action.”
Department officials eventually said new money had been found but it would come from an existing program that restricted funds from being used for research and policy work, sources say.
New money would be contingent on taking the name Sisters in Spirit out of the proposal. They also said that none of the money could be spent on the database.
Losing the name would be a serious blow to NWAC. Sisters in Spirit, intertwined with its Grandmother Moon logo, has grown to represent the memories and stories of the missing and the dead women.
Sisters in Spirit vigils are held every year to commemorate murdered and missing Aboriginal women and the Grandmother Moon logo is often prominently displayed at these national events.
If the database of the hundreds of murdered and missing women cases turns stagnant, it remains unclear what could take its place. Before the database came into being, it was up to individuals posting on scattered websites to keep the search for missing Aboriginal women going.
The recently announced national police support centre for missing persons and unidentified remains won’t be up and running until at least 2013, according to the RCMP. The centre received $4 million of the $10 million set aside in the budget to deal with murdered and missing Aboriginal women.
The centre has also received an additional $6 million for a total of $10 million over five years, the RCMP said.
The centre will become the third branch of the Canadian Police Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, but it will not have a separate section dedicated for Aboriginal women.
The new centre will rely on missing persons reports filed with local police forces. It will provide linkages to other cases if they exist.
The Sisters in Spirit database includes some historical cases that were not accepted by police. It also includes cases where police have closed the book on a woman’s death, despite lingering questions from family members.
After the release of its spring report, Sisters in Spirit has been in the process of analysing 20 new cases.
Jorge Barrera is a reporter with the APTN National News Ottawa bureau. The story was originally published on APTN’s website.